Strategist’s inside view: What public agencies want in consulting firms

John Withers is a consultant with public affairs consulting firm California Strategies, LLC (“CalStrat”), but he also is a long-standing board member on public agencies in Southern California. In an interview for the upcoming market research report The 2011-2012 AEC Market Guide to California, Withers offers valuable insight into what public agencies look for in their consultants.

“I sit on the board of several public agencies – water districts, sanitation districts – and in 24 years I’ve seen every pitch known to man,” says Withers, who focuses on water resource management, regulatory issues, land use and development, and infrastructure for CalStrat. “When I sit down and consider a consultant, in the simplest terms I’m analyzing three things.

“First, do they have equivalent project experience? Where have they done this kind of project before successfully?

“Second, I look at the resumes of the key people who we would interface with on a day-to-day basis. If there’s a problem, who is going to take care of it and will they be able to take care of it.

“And their technical approach. I want them to show that they’re already on the job, thinking about it. What are the opportunities and constraints? What can they do to add value? Are they showing us any innovative or alternative approaches?”

While most good AEC professionals know that these are three critical aspects of the process, how many actually deliver a strong performance in these areas? How many junior folks in our firms truly grasp their importance? What better way to drive the point home than to hear it straight from the source?

With public-sector work, Withers says that he’s instructing his clients in the design and construction industries to make sure the funding for the projects they’re pursuing have a solid footing. “For public-dollar projects, the key concept is having a dedicated revenue stream, something where no one can get their hands on the money,” he says. “You want projects with dollars that are earmarked and directed for a particular purpose, not something from the [general fund]. Water/wastewater projects tend to be very stable now; they usually have a steady, dedicated funding source.”

Withers adds that he’s never seen the market so fragmented in his many years in the business. “If you ask how the state of California is doing, you have to drill way down and look at it on a project-by-project and product-by-product basis. It’s a very uneven marketplace.”

Withers offers more of his perspective in various sections of The 2011-2012 AEC Market Guide to California, which is being published by The JAGG Group and due to ship in late August.  


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